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March 28 2013

11:00

Fact-Checking Social Media: The Case of the Pope and the Dictator

Did Pope Francis play a major role in Argentina's Dirty War? Reporters claim they can substantiate this allegation. They published photos of dictator Jorge Videla with a cardinal, allegedly Jorge Bergoglio, the recently elected Pope Francis. But something was wrong with these findings.

Great find, Brad: pope's connivance with dictatorship RT @delong Hugh O'Shaughnessy: Sins of the Argentine church bit.ly/XuR7k0

— Matt Seaton (@mattseaton) March 13, 2013

The buzz started just two hours after the waiting for white smoke was over. Hundreds of people, including reporters, tweeted a link to a 2011 story in The Guardian: "The Sins of the Argentinian Church."

Blogs came up with similar stories. Documentary maker Michael Moore forwarded a link to a photo of Videla with a cardinal -- allegedly, the new pope. For some newspapers, like the Dutch Volkskrant, these tweets were sufficient to break the story. "Pope sparks controversy," the newspaper wrote.

ogg.jpg

In the end, everybody had to correct their stories. Moore withdrew his tweet, The Guardian corrected the 2-year-old article in which Bergoglio was mentioned, and Volkskrant apologized for using the wrong photos.

CORRECTION: New Pope too young, photo circulating not of him giving communion to Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla

— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) March 14, 2013

With the help of basic Internet research skills this never would have happened. Let's try to debunk all four clues:

1. The Guardian article

free.jpg The story came from the "Comment is free" section, the opinion corner of the newspaper.

It wasn't a factual story that was tweeted, but an opinion.

2. Enough people retweeted it

The number of retweets by itself, does not tell much about the credibility of a story. Take, for example, a look at a fake Amber Alert that was retweeted thousands of times:

henk2.jpg

But fact checking social media starts with numbers. How many people retweeted something? From which countries? How many clicked on the link? To make an educated guess, you need tools.

Tracking links

Type in the link to the story you want to investigate in Backtweets

backtweet.png

You see it is quoted 23 times, but that is the latest results. Search for March 13, 2013 and March 14, 2013. If you click on "More Tweets" you can access an archive of 5,840 tweets.

Keep in mind that you will miss tweets that use a shortened link service like bit.ly. You have to investigate each possible link separately in Backtweets. That's boring work, but somebody has to do this. Only then you'll see reporters who retweeted the link, like this Italian reporter:

italian.png

She deleted the tweet, but with Backtweet you can still find it.

Shortening services

If you type the plus sign behind any bit.ly link, you will get link statistics.

statistics.png

The trick with to

If you search in Twitter for: to (name of source) several concerns came up. Usually, followers are the first to correct false tweets. Therefore, it makes sense to use to:@mattseaton or _@to:MMflint (Michael Moore) to find out if somebody warned the source of the story. Here you see the same Italian reporter has some doubts after she posted and removed the link to the Guardian article:

did you counter factcheck this or is the source just #Horacio_Verbitsky's book? @mattseaton @delong

— Anna Masera (@annamasera) March 13, 2013

Another warning:

@mattseaton @annamasera Please fact check,Verbitsky was friend of Kirchners , accusations against Pope seem to be retaliation..

— Karen La Bretonne (@Lady_BZH) March 14, 2013

3. Blogs

Blogs broke the news, like Consortium News.stolen.jpg

Who is behind that source? I use this little Google trick to find sources who talk about
the blog, but are not affiliated with it. Here's how you do that:

perry.jpg

The writer is Robert Perry, who has a serious problem "with millions of Americans brainwashed by the waves of disinformation." His site wants to fight distortions of Fox News and "the hordes of other right-wing media outlets." The blog constitutes mostly activism rather than journalism.

4. The pictures

Michael Moore corrected his tweet several hours after he had posted the original. Without his correction, however, validation would have been possible too. You can upload the specific photo -- in this case, the alleged photo of the pope and Videla, to Google Images and try to find the original source:

amazng.jpg

Google now presents a list of most popular search words in conjunction with the image. When I tried this on the exact day the pope was presented, the words were different: "corruption," "Argentina" and "church." This indicated the person who found the image probably typed these words in Google to find the particular image that later sparked so much controversy.

To find the first date the photo was published or that Google indexed the photo, you can go back in time. You can order Google to show you only photos older than, say 2004:

travek.jpg

Now you get to the original source, Getty Images. In the caption it says that Videla visited a church in Buenos Aires in 1990. The new pope isn't mentioned:

getty.jpg

Compare this with Pope's Francis biography from the Vatican:

org.jpg

It says he was a spiritual director in Córdoba, 400 miles away from Buenos Aires. Sure, they have buses and trains and plains in Argentina, but still.

Another tip now: Always think "video" when you see a picture. Just type some words from the event in Google's search engine. This will lead to a YouTube video of the same event as captured on the Getty photo.

youtube2.jpg

Here's that YouTube video.

Now you see both people from the Getty image moving. This doesn't make sense. Pope Francis was born December 17, 1936. Videla was born August 2, 1925. He is more than 10 years older. In the YouTube video, the ages don't seem to match.

We have uncovered enough reason to doubt the original claim about Pope Francis, so now it's time to go for the final check. Probably more people discovered what you just found out. So, order Google to search for fake photos:

"false" OR "falsely" OR "fake photo" "jorge videla" "jorge bergoglio"

Don't search in English, but go for Spanish and French. You can type the words in English, and Google translates the keywords and the hits are translated back into English.

frencj.jpg

The first hit leads to sources who claim that the Michael Moore photo is false:

henf.jpg

Other keywords can be "not true," "hoax" or "blunder."

It's also a good idea to send a tweet to Storyful -- they even have a hashtag #dailydebunk.

deubnked.png

There you have it. The Guardian amended its story from 2011 on March 14, 2013.

@lady_bzh @annamasera @delong Correction coming shortly. Verbitsky book does deal with Bergoglio, but O'Shaughnessy misreported story

— Matt Seaton (@mattseaton) March 14, 2013

Nevertheless, some newspapers broke the story afterwards, as Volkskrant did on March 15. They apologized the next day:

correct.png

By doing some background research, this could have been avoided. Had proper fact checking taken place, this story should not have been written in the first place.

Dutch born Henk van Ess, currently chairs the VVOJ, the Association of Investigative Journalists for The Netherlands and Belgium. Van Ess teaches internet research & multimedia/cross media at universities and news media in Europe. He is founder of VVOJ Medialab and search engines, Inside Search, Cablesearch.org and Facing Facebook. His current projects include consultancy for news websites, fact checking of social media and internet research workshops.

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August 22 2012

17:19

August 21 2012

14:30

Inside the Star Chamber: How PolitiFact tries to find truth in a world of make-believe

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in the Star Chamber

WASHINGTON — PolitiFact’s “Star Chamber” is like Air Force One: It’s not an actual room, just the name of wherever Bill Adair happens to be sitting when it’s time to break out the Truth-O-Meter and pass judgment on the words of politicians. Today it’s his office.

Three judges preside, usually the same three: Adair, Washington bureau chief of the Tampa Bay (née St. Petersburg) Times; Angie Drobnic Holan, his deputy; and Amy Hollyfield, his boss.

For this ruling — one of four I sat in on over two days last month — Holan and Hollyfield are on the phone. Staff writer Louis Jacobson is sitting in. He is recommending a rating of False for this claim, from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), but Hollyfield wants to at least consider something stronger:

83% of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of #Obamacare #repealandreplace

— Jeff Duncan (@Duncan4Congress) July 10, 2012

Hollyfield: Is there any movement for a Pants on Fire?

Adair: I thought about it, but I didn’t feel like it was far enough off to be a Pants on Fire. What did you think, Lou?

Jacobson: I would agree. Basically it was a case I think of his staff blindly taking basically what was in Drudge and Daily Caller. Should they have been more diligent about checking the fine print of the poll? Yes, they should have. Were they being really reckless in what they did? No. It was pretty garden-variety sloppiness, I would say. I don’t think it rises to the level of flagrancy that I would think of a Pants on Fire.

Adair: It’s just not quite ridiculous. It’s definitely false, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous.

This scene has played out 6,000 times before, but not in public view. Like the original Court of Star Chamber, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rulings have always been secret. The Star Chamber was a symbol of Tudor power, a 15th-century invention of Henry VII to try people he didn’t much care for. While the history is fuzzy, Wikipedia’s synopsis fits the chamber’s present-day reputation: “Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses.”

PolitiFact turns five on Wednesday. Adair founded the site to cover the 2008 election, but the inspiration came one cycle earlier, when a turncoat Democrat named Zell Miller told tens of thousands of Republicans that Sen. John Kerry had voted to weaken the U.S. military. “Miller was really distorting his record,” Adair says, “and yet I didn’t do anything about it.”

The team won a Pulitzer Prize for the election coverage. The site’s basic idea — rate the veracity of political statements on a six-point scale — has modernized and mainstreamed the old art of fact-checking. The PolitiFact national team just hired its fourth full-time fact checker, and 36 journalists work for PolitiFact’s 11 licensed state sites. This week PolitiFact launches its second, free mobile app for iPhone and Android, “Settle It!,” which provides a clever keyword-based interface to help resolve arguments at the dinner table. (PolitiFact’s original mobile app, at $1.99, has sold more than 24,000 copies.) The site attracts about 100,000 pageviews per day, Adair told me, and that number will certainly rise as the election draws closer and politicians get weirder.

PolitiFact's "I Brake for Pants on Fire" bumper sticker

If your job is to call people liars, and you’re on a roll doing it, you can expect a steady barrage of criticism. PolitiFact has been under fire practically as long as it has existed, but things intensified earlier this year, when Rachel Maddow criticized PolitiFact for, in her view, botching a series of rulings.

In public, Adair responded cooly: “We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make,” is his refrain. In private, it struck a nerve.

“I think the criticism in January and February, added to some of the criticism we’ve gotten from conservatives over the months, persuaded us that we needed to make some improvements in our process,” Adair told me. “We directed our reporters to slow down and not try to rush fact-checks. We directed all of our reporters and editors to make sure that [they're] clear in the ruling statement.”

Adair made a series of small changes to tighten up the journalism. And for the first time he invited a reporter — me — to watch the truth sausage get made.

The paradox of fact-checking

To understand fact-checking is to accept a paradox: “Words matter,” as PolitiFact’s core principles go, and “context matters.”

Consider this incident recently all over the news: Harry Reid says some guy told him Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. It’s probably true. Some guy probably did say that to Harry Reid. But we can’t know for sure. To evaluate that statement is almost impossible without cooperative witnesses to the conversation.

Now, is Reid’s implication true? We can’t know that, either, not until someone produces evidence. So how does a fact checker handle this claim?

The Truth-O-Meter gave Reid its harshest ruling, “Pants on Fire,” a PolitiFact trademark reserved for claims it considers not only false but absurd. In the Star Chamber, judges ruled that Reid had no evidence to back up his claim.

“It is now possible to get called a liar by PolitiFact for saying something true,” complained James Poniewozik and others. But True certainly would not have sufficed, here not even Half True.

Maybe the Truth-O-Meter needs an “Unsubstantiated” rating. They considered it, but decided against it, Adair told me, “because of fears that we’d end up rating many, many things ‘unsubstantiated.’”

Whereas truth is complicated, elastic, subjective… the Truth-O-Meter is simple, fixed, unambiguous. In a way, this overly simplistic device embodies the problem PolitiFact is trying to solve.

“The fundamental irony is that the same technological changes and changes in the media system that make organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org possible also make their work less effective, in that we do have this highly fragmented media environment,” said Lucas Graves, who recently defended his dissertation on fact-checking at Columbia University.

So the Truth-O-Meter is the ultimate webby invention: bite-sized, viral-ready. Whether that Pants on Fire for Reid was warranted or not, 4,300 shares on Facebook is pretty good. PolitiFact is not the only fact checker in town, but the Truth-O-Meter is everywhere; the same simplicity in its rating system that opens it to so much criticism also helps it spread, tweet by tweet.

“PolitiFact exists to be cited. It exists to be quoted,” Graves said. “Every Truth-O-Meter piece packages really easily and neatly into a five-minute broadcast segment for CNN or for MSNBC.” (In fact, Adair told me, he has appeared on CNN alone at least 300 times.)

PolitiFact political cartoon

Stories get “chambered,” in PolitiFact parlance, 10-15 times a week. Adair begins by reading the ruling statement — that is, the precise phrase or claim being evaluated — aloud. Then — and this is new, post-criticism — Adair asks four questions, highlighted in bold. (“Sounds like something from Passover, but the four questions really helps get us focused,” he says.)

Adair: We are ready to rule on the Jeff Duncan item. So the ruling statement is: “83 percent of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of ObamaCare.” Lou is recommending a False. Let’s go through the questions.

Is the claim literally true?

Adair: No.

Jacobson: No, using Obamacare.

Is the claim open to interpretation? Is there another way to read the claim?

Jacobson: I don’t think so.

Adair: I don’t think so.

Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?

Adair: No. Did you get in touch with Duncan?

Jacobson: Yes, and his office declined to speak. Politely declined.

Did we check to see how we handled similar claims in the past?

Adair: Yes, we looked at the — and this didn’t actually get included in the item…

Jacobson:The Glenn Beck item.

Adair: Was it Glenn Beck?

Jacobson: Two years ago.

Adair: I thought it was the editorial in the Financial Times or whatever. What was that?

Jacobson: Well, Beck was quoted citing a poll by Investors Business Daily.

Adair: Investors Business Daily, right.

Jacobson: We gave that a False too, I think. But similar issues, basically.

Adair: Okay. So we have checked how we handled similar things in the past. Lou is recommending a false. How do we feel about false?

Angie: I feel good.

Hollyfield: Yup.

Adair: Good. All right, not a lot of discussion on this one!

After briefly considering Pants on Fire, they agree on False.

Question No. 3 — Does the speaker prove the claim to be true? — ensures the reporter always talks to the person who made the statement. Among Maddow’s complaints was that she was never contacted for a False ruling on one of her claims.

Another change in the last year has created a lot of grief for PoitiFact: Fact checkers now lean more heavily on context when politicians appear to take credit or give blame. Which brings us to Rachel Maddow’s complaint. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said:

In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.

PolitiFact rated that Half True, saying an executive can only take so much credit for job creation. But did he take credit? Would the claim have been 100 percent true if not for the speaker? Under criticism, PolitiFact revised the ruling up to Mostly True. Maddow was not satisfied:

You are a mess! You are fired! You are undermining the definition of the word “fact” in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority on “factishness,” let alone fact. You are fired.

Maddow (in addition to many, many liberals) was already mad about PolitiFact’s pick for 2011 Lie of the Year, that Republicans had voted, through the Ryan budget, to end Medicare. Of course, her criticism then was that PolitiFact was too literal.

“Forget about right or wrong,” Graves said. “There’s no right answer if you define ‘right’ as coming up with a ruling that everybody will agree with, especially when it comes to the question of interpreting things literally or taking an account out of context.” Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Graves, who identifies himself as falling “pretty left” on the spectrum, has observed PolitiFact twice: for a week last year and again for a three-day training session with one of PolitiFact’s state sites.

“One of the things that comes through clearest when you spend time with fact checkers…is that they have a very healthy sense that these are imperfect judgments that they’re making, but at the same time they’re going to strive to do them as fairly as possible. It’s a human endeavor. And like all human endeavors, it’s not infallible.”

A real live Truth-O-Meter

The truth is that fact-checking, and fact checkers, are kinda boring. What I witnessed was fair and fastidious; methodical, not mercurial. (That includes the other three (uneventful) rulings I watched.) I could uncover no evidence of PolitiFact’s evil scheme to slander either Republicans or Democrats. Adair says he’s a registered independent. He won’t tell me which candidate he voted for last election, and he protects his staff members’ privacy in the voting booth. In Virginia, where he lives, Adair abstains from open primary elections. Revealing his own politics would “suggest a bias that I don’t think is there,” Adair says.

“In a hyper-partisan world, that information would get distorted, and it would obscure the reality, which is that I think political journalists do a good job of leaving their personal beliefs at home and doing impartial journalism,” he says.

Does all of this effort make a dent in the net truth of the universe? Is moving from he-said-she-said to some form of judgment, simplified as it may be, “working?” Last month, David Brooks wrote:

A few years ago, newspapers and nonprofits set up fact-checking squads, rating campaign statements with Pinocchios and such. The hope was that if nonpartisan outfits exposed campaign deception, the campaigns would be too ashamed to lie so much.

This hope was naive. As John Dickerson of Slate has said, the campaigns want the Pinocchios. They want to show how tough they are.

“I don’t think we were naive. I’ve always said anyone who imagines we can change the behavior of candidates is bound to be disappointed,” said Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org. He was a pioneer of modern political fact-checking for CNN in the 1990s. “I suspect it is a fact that the junior woodchucks on the campaign staffs have now perversely come to value our criticism as some sort of merit badge, as though lying is a virtue, and a recognized lie is a bigger virtue.”

Rarely is there is a high political cost to lying. All the explainers in the world couldn’t completely blunt the impact of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s campaign to denigrate John Kerry’s military service. More recently, in July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed Chinese prostitution money helped finance the campaign of a Republican Congressman in Ohio. PolitiFact rated it Pants on Fire.

That didn’t stop the DCCC from rolling out identical claims in Wisconsin and Tennessee. The DCCC eventually apologized. But which made more of an impression on voters, the original lie or the eventual apology from an amorphous nationwide organization?

Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, has done a lot of research on the effects of fact-checking on the public. As he wrote for CJR:

It is true that corrective information may not change readers’ minds. My research with Georgia State’s Jason Reifler finds that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the most vulnerable ideological group and can even make them worse (PDF). Other research has reached similarly discouraging conclusions — at this point, we know much more about what journalists should not do than how they can respond effectively to false statements (PDF).

If the objective of fact-checking is to get politicians to stop lying, then no, fact-checking is not working. “My goal is not to get politicians to stop lying,” is another of Adair’s refrains. “Our goal is…to give people the information they need to make decisions.”

Unlike The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who awards Pinocchios for lies, or PolitiFact, which rates claims on a Truth-O-Meter, Jackson’s FactCheck.org doesn’t reduce its findings to a simple measurement. “I think you are telling people we can tell the difference between something that is 45 percent true and 57 percent true — and some negative number,” he said, referring to Pants on Fire. “There isn’t any scientific objective way to measure the degree of mendacity to any particular statement.”

“I think it’s fascinating that they chose to call it a Truth-O-Meter instead of a Truth Meter,” Graves said. Truth-O-Meter sounds like a kitchen gadget, or a toy. “That ‘O’ is sort of acknowledging that this is a human endeavor. There’s no such thing as a machine for perfectly and accurately making judgments of truth.”

Political cartoon by Chip Bok used with permission.

January 20 2012

16:00

This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

January 13 2012

16:30

January 06 2012

15:30

This Week in Review: Lessons from Murdoch on Twitter, and paywalls’ role in 2011-12

Murdoch, Twitter, and identity: News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch had a pretty horrible 2011, but he ended it with a curious decision, joining Twitter on New Year’s Eve. The account was quickly verified and introduced as real by Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey, dousing some of the skepticism about its legitimacy. His Twitter stream so far has consisted of a strange mix of News Corp. promotion and seemingly unfiltered personal opinions: He voiced his support for presidential candidate Rick Santorum (a former paid analyst for News Corp.’s Fox News) and ripped former Fox News host Glenn Beck.

But the biggest development in Murdoch’s Twitter immersion was about his wife, Wendi Deng, who appeared to join Twitter a day after he did and was also quickly verified as legitimate by Twitter. (The account even urged Murdoch to delete a tweet, which he did.) As it turned out, though, the account was not actually Deng, but a fake run by a British man. He said Twitter verified the account without contacting him.

This, understandably, raised a few questions about the reliability of identity online: If we couldn’t trust Twitter to tell us who on its service was who they said they were, the issue of online identity was about to become even more thorny. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram chastised Twitter for its lack of transparency about the process, and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple urged Twitter to get out of the verification business altogether: “The notion of a central authority — the Twitterburo, so to speak — sitting in judgment of authentic identities grinds against the identity of Twitter to begin with.” (Twitter has begun phasing out verification, limiting it to a case-by-case basis.)

Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times argued that the whole episode proved that regardless of what Twitter chooses to do, “the Internet is always the ultimate verification system for much of what appears on it.” Kara Swisher of All Things Digital unearthed the problem in this particular case that led to the faulty verification: A punctuation mixup in communication with Deng’s assistant.

Columbia’s Emily Bell drew a valuable lesson from the Rupert-joins-Twitter episode: As they wade into the social web, news organizations, she argued, need to do some serious thinking about how much control they’re giving up to third-party groups who may not have journalism among their primary interests. Elsewhere in Twitter, NPR Twitter savant Andy Carvin and NYU prof Clay Shirky spent an hour on WBUR’s On Point discussing Twitter’s impact on the world.

Trend-spotting for 2011 and 2012: I caught the front end of year-in-review season in my last review before the holidays, after the Lab’s deluge of 2012 predictions. But 2011 reviews and 2012 previews kept rolling in over the past two weeks, giving us a pretty thoroughly drawn picture of the year that was and the year to come. We’ll start with 2011.

Nielsen released its list of the most-visited sites and most-used devices of the year, with familiar names — Google, Facebook, Apple, YouTube — at the top. And Pew tallied the most-talked-about subjects on social media: Osama bin Laden on Facebook and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on Twitter topped the lists, and Pew noted that many of the top topics were oriented around specific people and led by the traditional media.

The Next Web’s Anna Heim and Mashable’s Meghan Peters reviewed the year in digital media trends, touching on social sharing, personal branding, paywalls, and longform sharing, among other ideas. At PBS MediaShift, Jeff Hermes and Andy Sellars authored one of the most interesting and informative year-end media reviews, looking at an eventful year in media law. As media analyst Alan Mutter pointed out, though, 2011 wasn’t so great for newspapers: Their shares dropped 27 percent on the year.

One of the flashpoints in this discussion of 2011 was the role of paywalls in the development of news last year: Mashable’s Peters called it “the year the paywall worked,” and J-Source’s Belinda Alzner said the initial signs of success for paywalls are great news for the financial future of serious journalism. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pushed back against those assertions, arguing that paywalls are only working in specific situations, and media prof Clay Shirky reflected on the ways paywalls are leading news orgs to focus on their most dedicated users, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. “The most promising experiment in user support means forgoing mass in favor of passion; this may be the year where we see how papers figure out how to reward the people most committed to their long-term survival,” he wrote.

Which leads us to 2012, and sets of media/tech predictions from the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor, j-prof Alfred Hermida, Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, and Sulia’s Joshua Young. Sklar and Sonderman both asserted that news is going to move the needle online (especially on Facebook, according to Sonderman), and while Hermida said social media is going to start to just become part of the background, he argued that that’s a good thing — we’re going to start to find the really interesting uses for it, as Gillmor also said. J-prof Adam Glenn also chimed in at PBS MediaShift with his review of six trends in journalism education, including journo-programming and increased involvement in community news.

SOPA’s generation gap: The debate over Internet censorship and SOPA will continue unabated into the new year, and we’re continuing to see groups standing up for and against the bill, with the Online News Association and dozens of major Internet companies voicing their opposition. One web company who notoriously came out in favor of the bill, GoDaddy, faced the wrath of the rest of the web, with some 37,000 domains being pulled in two days. The web hosting company quickly pulled its support for SOPA, though it isn’t opposing the bill, either.

New York Times media critic David Carr also made the case against the bill, noting that it’s gaining support because many members of Congress are on the other side of a cultural/generational divide from those on the web. He quoted Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler: “It’s people who grew up on the Web versus people who still don’t use it. In Washington, they simply don’t see the way that the Web has completely reconfigured society across classes, education and race. The Internet isn’t real to them yet.”

Forbes’ Paul Tassi wrote about the fact that many major traditional media companies have slyly promoted some forms of piracy over the past decade, and GigaOM’s Derrick Harris highlighted an idea to have those companies put some of their own money into piracy enforcement.

Tough times for the Times: It’s been a rough couple of weeks for The New York Times: Hundreds of staffers signed an open letter to Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. expressing their frustration over various compensation and benefits issues. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported that the staffers’ union had also considered storming Sulzberger’s office or walking out, and Politico’s Dylan Byers noted that the signers covered a broad swath of the Times’ newsroom, cutting across generational lines.

The Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes gave some of the details behind the union’s concerns about the inequity of the paper’s buyouts. But media consultant Terry Heaton didn’t have much sympathy: He said the union’s pleas represented an outmoded faith in the collective, and that Times staffers need to take more of an everyone-for-themselves approach.

The Times also announced it would sell its 16 regional newspapers for $143 million to Halifax Media Group, a deal that had been rumored for a week or two, and told Jim Romenesko it would drop most of its podcasts this year. To make matters worse, the paper mistakenly sent an email to more than 8 million followers telling them their print subscriptions had been canceled.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else you might have missed over the holidays:

— A few thoughtful postscripts in the debate over PolitiFact and fact-checking operations: Slate’s Dave Weigel and Forbes’ John McQuaid dissected PolitiFact’s defense, and Poynter’s Craig Silverman offered some ideas for improving fact-checking from a recent roundtable. And Greg Marx of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that fact-checkers are over-reaching beyond the bounds of the bold language they use.

— A couple of good pieces on tech and the culture of dissent from Wired: A Sean Captain feature on the efforts to meet the social information needs of the Occupy movement, and the second part of Quinn Norton’s series going inside Anonymous.

— For Wikipedia watchers, a good look at where the site is now and how it’s trying to survive and thrive from The American Prospect.

— Finally, a deep thought about journalism for this weekend: Researcher Nick Diakopoulos’ post reconceiving journalism in terms of information science.

Crystal ball photo by Melanie Cook used under a Creative Commons license.

July 29 2011

19:49

Better to be first or right? - A false choice and an excuse

The Buttry Diary :: An editor asks by email a question Steve Buttry hears often as journalists address the challenges of digital journalism: Is it better to be first, or be right?” Three times recently, the editor said, his staff was beaten (not on breaking news), but the competition had major errors in its reports. “When we published, we got the stories right, though, again, not first,” the editor said."I regard this as a false choice," writes Steve Buttry.

[Steve Buttry:] I believe accuracy and verification become more important in digital journalism than in print journalism. The daily deadlines of print usually give you hours to nail down the facts before you have to publish. The constant deadlines of digital publishing mean that you publish when you have the facts verified

Better to be first or right?

Continue to read Steve Buttry, stevebuttry.wordpress.com

July 27 2011

10:50

Just in time for 2012 elections: NewsTrust dives into the fact-check business with expanded Truthsquad

Niemanlab :: Just in time for the 2012 elections, the cottage industry of media fact-checking is ramping up. That latest addition is Truthsquad, which began last year as a pilot project of NewsTrust. TruthSquad will differentiate itself from its peers by bringing in the crowd, combining the talents of professional journalists with the eagerness (if not competitiveness) of the public to separate fact from less-than fact. As the Truthsquad homepage puts it, they’re “developing a pro-am network to fact-check political claims during the 2012 elections.

Continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

June 27 2011

06:36

Frédéric Filloux - a debate about the management of facts at “digital speed”

Monday Note :: "Compared to Anglo-Saxon journalism standards, French practices are regrettably lax," Frédéric Filloux writes. "It doesn’t mean that France doesn’t have remarkable writers, editors or medias; but, too often, their practices are just sloppy. Here (France), journalists abuse anonymous quotes and are too cozy with their sources. Papers are insufficiently edited, reporters routinely go after a story with a pre-defined agenda – they know what they want to write and will twist facts, quotes and background accordingly."

How to manage facts at "digital speed" (in France or elsewhere in the world)?

Continue to read Frédéric Filloux, www.mondaynote.com

November 16 2010

19:40

Crowdsourced Fact-Checking? What We Learned from Truthsquad

In June, Senator U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch made the statement that "87 million Americans will be forced out of their coverage" by President Obama's health care plan.

It was quite a claim. But was it true?

That's a common, and important, question -- and it can often be hard to quickly nail down the real facts in the information-overloaded world we live in. Professional fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org have taken up the charge to verify the claims of politicians, pundits and newsmakers, and they provide a great service to the public. But I believe there's also a role for the average person in the fact-checking process. By actively researching and verifying what we hear in the news, we can become more informed citizens, and more discriminating news consumers. These are essential skills for all of us to develop.

With that in mind, we at NewsTrust, a non-profit social news network, have been working on Truthsquad, a community fact-checking service that helps people verify the news online, with professional guidance.

Our first pilot for Truthsquad took place in August 2010, with the help of our partners at the Poynter Institute, our advisors at FactCheck.org and our funders at Omidyar Network. That pilot was well received by our community, partners and advisors, as noted in our first report, and by third-party observers such as GigaOm. We've since hosted a variety of weekly Truthsquads, and are starting a second pilot with MediaBugs.org and RegretTheError.com to identify and correct errors in the news media. (Disclosure: MediaShift managing editor Craig Silverman runs RegretTheError.com.)

Our first test project was by our standards a success; more importantly, it revealed several important lessons about the best ways to manage crowdsourced fact-checking, and about why people participate in this activity. Here are our key takeaways from this first pilot, which I'll elaborate on below:

  • A game-like experience makes fact-checking more engaging.
  • A professional-amateur (pro-am) collaboration delivers reliable results and a civil conversation.
  • Crowd contributions are limited, requiring editorial oversight and better rewards.
  • Community fact-checking fills a gap between traditional journalism and social media.

What is Truthsquad?

truthsquadlogo.pngTruthsquad.com features controversial quotes from politicians or pundits and asks the community whether they think they are true or false. Community members are welcome to make a first guess, then check our answers and research links to see if they are correct. They can change their answer anytime, as they come across new facts.

To help participants find the right answer, we invite them to review and/or post links to factual evidence that supports or opposes each statement. A professional journalist leads each "truthsquad" to guide participants in this interactive quest. This "squad leader" then writes an in-depth verdict based on our collaborative research. That verdict is emailed to all participants, with request for comments. (It can be revised as needed.)

Finding #1: Game-Like Experience Makes Fact-Checking Engaging

We noted a significant increase in community participation for Truthsquad compared to other NewsTrust services we tested this year. Some data from our first pilot:

  • This pilot generated twice as much participation as other 2010 pilots.
  • Users gave ten times more answers per quote than reviews per story on our site.
  • Over half of the participants read linked stories, and a third answered a Truthsquad quote.
  • One in six participants reviewed the stories linked as factual evidence.

We think this high level of engagement is partly due to the game-like quality of our user experience, which starts by inviting people to guess whether a statement is true or false -- an easy task that anyone can do in under a minute.

After their first guess, people are more likely to participate as researchers, because their curiosity has been piqued and they want to know the answer. As a result, participants often take the time to review linked stories and post more evidence on their own. Without realizing it, they are becoming fact-checkers.

Finding #2: Pro-Am Collaboration Delivers Reliable Results

We decided early on that professionals needed to guide this collaborative investigation. We wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls of pure crowdsourcing initiatives, which can turn into mob scenes -- particularly around politically charged issues. At the start of this experiment, we asked experienced journalists at FactCheck.org and the Poynter Institute to coach us and our community and help write and edit some of our first verdicts.

We think the pro-am approach paid off in a number of ways:

  • Amateurs learned valuable fact-checking skills by interacting with professionals.
  • A few community members posted links that were critical to reaching our verdicts.
  • Answers from our community generally matched final verdicts from our editors.
  • We came to the same conclusions as FactCheck.org in side-by-side blind tests.
  • Comments from participants were generally civil and focused on facts.

hatchverdict.png

The results of our first pilot led our advisor Brooks Jackson, director at FactCheck.org, to comment, "So far I would say the experiment is off to a solid start. The verdicts of the Truthsquad editors seem to me to be reasonable and based on good research."

This collaboration between journalists and citizens made us all more productive. The professionals shared helpful information-gathering tips, and the citizens extended that expertise on a larger scale, with multiple checks and balances between our community and our editors. Our editors spearheaded this investigation, but the community made important contributions through comments and links to factual evidence (some of which were invaluable). On a couple occasions, we even revised our verdicts based on new evidence from our community. This focus on facts also helped set the tone for our conversations, which were generally civil and informative.

Finding #3: Crowd Contributions Are Limited, Requiring Better Rewards

Despite high levels of participation, we didn't get as many useful links and reviews from our community as we had hoped. Our editorial team did much of the hard work to research factual evidence. (Two-thirds of story reviews and most links were posted by our staff.) Each quote represented up to two days of work from our editors, from start to finish. So this project turned out to be more labor-intensive than we thought, and a daily fact-checking service will require a dedicated editorial team to guarantee reliable results.

Managing our community and responding thoughtfully to their posts also takes additional time, and is an important part of this process. In future releases, we would like to provide more coaching and educational services, as well as better rewards for our contributors.

Training citizens to separate fact from spin is perhaps the greatest benefit of our initiative, but keeping them engaged will require ingenuity and tender loving care on our part.

"It seems based on this pilot that citizens can learn fact-checking skills quite easily," said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute. "The challenge is to motivate them to do this occasionally."

To address this issue, future versions of Truthsquad could reward members who take the time to fact-check the news in order to get them to do it more often. We would like to give them extra points for reading, reviewing or posting stories, as well as special badges, redeemable credits and/or prizes. We can also feature high scores on leaderboards, and give monthly awards to the most deserving contributors.

Finding #4: Community Fact-Checking Fills a Need

Every survey we have done in recent years has consistently shown fact-checking as a top priority for our community, and this was confirmed by the results of this pilot.

Here are some key observations from our recent survey about NewsTrust's 2010 pilots:

  • A majority of survey respondents (61 percent) found Truthsquad useful or very useful.
  • Half of survey respondents wanted a new quote every day -- or several quotes a day.
  • Half of survey respondents said they could fact-check quotes several times per week.
  • One in seven survey respondents were prepared to donate for this service.

Screen shot 2010-11-16 at 8.43.40 AM.png

We think the generally favorable response to Truthsquad is due to two factors: a growing demand for fact-checking services, combined with a desire to contribute to this civic process. Fact-checking is still the best way to verify the accuracy of what people hear in the news, and it is perceived as an effective remedy to expose politicians or pundits who propagate misinformation.

At the same time, the explosion of social media makes people more likely to participate in investigations like these. They want this civil watchdog network, and expect to have a voice in it.

Next steps

Based on the lessons from this experiment, we would like to offer Truthsquad on an ongoing basis, with a goal to fact-check one quote a day, year-round -- as well as to feature the work of other trusted research organizations on Truthsquad.com.

We also want to let members post their own quotes for fact-checking and reward them for their contributions through both a game-like interface and more educational benefits. We have an opportunity to track the expertise of participants based on their answers, which could allow us to measure their progress with core news literacy skills, as well as their overall understanding of important public issues and the overall impact of our service.

Over time, we hope to provide more training and certification services, to build lasting research skills that could help students and adults alike play a more active role in our growing information economy. If this appeals to you, we invite you to sign up here and join our experiment.

As for that Orrin Hatch quote? In the end, 163 participants helped us fact-check his statement about health care. Our final verdict was that the Senator's claim was false. That finding was based on factual evidence provided by one of our NewsTrust members, who dug up the right set of regulations, and pointed out they had been misstated by Hatch. Our editor's verdict was confirmed by similar findings from FactCheck.org, and also matched our community's consensus: 138 participants answered that this statement was false (versus 11 who thought it was true).

More importantly, we as a community learned how to separate fact from fiction -- and became more engaged as citizens.

Fabrice Florin is executive director and founder of NewsTrust, where he manages creative and business development for this next-generation social news network. NewsTrust helps people find and share good journalism online, so they can make more informed decisions as citizens. With a 30-year track record in new media and technology, Fabrice has developed a wide range of leading-edge entertainment, education and software products. Fabrice's previous wireless venture, Handtap, was a leading provider of multimedia content for mobile phones. Fabrice was recently elected an Ashoka Fellow for his work as a social entrepreneur in journalism.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

August 23 2010

11:44

NYT: Fact-checking in the online age

Great first-person piece from the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan on the process of fact-checking at newspapers past and present:

In short, fact-checking has assumed radically new forms in the past 15 years. Only fact-checkers from legacy media probably miss the quaint old procedures. But if the web has changed what qualifies as fact-checking, has it also changed what qualifies as a fact? I suspect that facts on the web are now more rhetorical devices than identifiable objects. But I can’t verify that.

Full article on the New York Times at this link…Similar Posts:



August 16 2010

16:34

Nieman: Exploring a niche for non-niche fact-checking

There are a number of fact-checking platforms online, including PolitiFact, FactCheck and Meet the Facts. “The efforts are admirable. They’re also, however, atomised,” writes Nieman Journalism Lab’s Megan Garber.

Now Andrew Lih, associate professor of new media at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism and author of The Wikipedia Revolution, has plans to bring the scope of the wiki format to the world of fact-checking with WikiFactCheck.

WikiFactCheck wants not only to crowdsource, but also to centralise, the fact-checking enterprise, aggregating other efforts and creating a framework so extensive that it can also attempt to be comprehensive. There’s a niche, Lih believes, for a fact-checking site that’s determinedly non-niche.

Full story at this link…Similar Posts:



12:00

Truth-o-Meter, 2G: Andrew Lih wants to wikify fact-checking

Epic fact: We are living at the dawn of the Information Age. Less-epic fact: Our historical moment is engendering doubt. The more bits of information we have out there, and the more sources we have providing them, the more wary we need to be of their accuracy. So we’ve created a host of media platforms dedicated to fact-checking: We have PolitiFact over here, FactCheck over there, Meet the Facts over there, @TBDFactsMachine over there, Voice of San Diego’s Fact Check blog over there, NewsTrust’s crowdsourced Truthsquad over there (and, even farther afield, source verifiers like Sunlight’s new Poligraft platform)…each with a different scope of interest, and each with different methods and metrics of verification. (Compare, for example, PolitiFact’s Truth-o-Meter to FactCheck.org’s narrative assessments of veracity.) The efforts are admirable; they’re also, however, atomized.

“The problem, if you look at what’s being done right now, is often a lack of completeness,” says Andrew Lih, a visiting professor of new media at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism. The disparate outlets have to be selective about the scope of their fact-checking; they simply don’t have the manpower to be comprehensive about verifying all the claims — political, economic, medical, sociological — pinging like pinballs around the Internet.

But what if the current fact-checking operations could be greater than the sum of their parts? What if there were a centralized spot where consumers of news could obtain — and offer — verification?

Enter WikiFactCheck, the new project that aims to do exactly what its name suggests: bring the sensibility — and the scope — of the wiki to the systemic challenges of fact-checking. The platform’s been in the works for about two years now, says Lih (who, in addition to creating the wiki, is a veteran Wikipedian and the author of The Wikipedia Revolution). He dreamed it up while working on WikiNews; though that project never reached the scope of its sister site — largely because its premise of discrete news narratives isn’t ideal for the wiki platform — a news-focused wiki that could succeed, Lih thought, was one that focused on the core unit of news: facts themselves. When Jay Rosen added attention to the need for systematic fact-checking of news content — most notably, through his campaign to fact-check the infamously info-miscuous Sunday shows — it became even more clear, Lih told me: This could be a job for a wiki.

WikiFactCheck wants not only to crowdsource, but also to centralize, the fact-checking enterprise, aggregating other efforts and creating a framework so extensive that it can also attempt to be comprehensive. There’s a niche, Lih believes, for a fact-checking site that’s determinedly non-niche. Wikipedia, he points out, is ultimately “a great aggregator”; and much of WikiFactCheck’s value could similarly be, he says, to catalog the results of other fact-checking outfits “and just be a meta-site.” Think Rotten Tomatoes — simple, summative, unapologetically derivative — for truth-claims.

If the grandeur implicit in that proposition sounds familiar, it’s because the idea for WikiFactCheck is pretty much identical to the one that guided the development of Wikipedia: to become a centralized repository of information shaped by, and limited only by the commitment of, the crowd. A place where the veracity of information is arbitrated discursively — among people who are motivated by the desire for veracity itself.

Which is idealistic, yes — unicornslollipopsrainbows idealistic, even — but, then again, so is Wikipedia. “In 2000, before Wikipedia started, the idea that you would have an online encyclopedia that was updated within seconds of something happening was preposterous,” Lih points out. Today, though, not only do we take Wikipedia for granted; we become indignant in those rare cases when entries fail to offer us up-to-the-minute updates on our topics of interest. Thus, the premise of WikiFactCheck: What’s to say that Wikipedia contributors’ famous commitment — of time, of enthusiasm, of Shirkian surplus — can’t be applied to verifying information as well as aggregating it?

What such a platform would look like, once populated, remains to be seen; the beauty of a wiki being its flexibility, users will make of the site what they will, with the crowd determining which claims/episodes/topics deserve to be checked in the first place. Ideally, “an experienced community of folks who are used to cataloging and tracking these kinds of things” — seasoned Wikipedians — will guide that process, Lih says. As he imagines it, though, the ideal structure of the site would filter truth-claims by episode, or “module” — one episode of “Meet the Press,” say, or one political campaign ad. “I think that’s pretty much what you’d want: one page per media item,” Lih says. “Whether that item is one show or one ad, we’ll have to figure out.”

Another thing to figure out will be how a wiki that will likely rely on publishing comprehensive documents — transcripts, articles, etc. — to verify their contents will dance around copyright issues. But “if there ever were a slam-dunk case for meeting all the attributes of the Fair Use Doctrine,” Lih says, “this is it.” Fact-checking is criticism and comment; it has an educational component (particularly if it operates under the auspices of USC Annenberg); and it doesn’t detract from content’s commercial value. In fact: “I can’t imagine another project that could be so strong in meeting the standards for fair use,” Lih says.

And what about the most common concern when it comes to informational wikis — that people with less-than-noble agendas will try to game the system and codify baseless versions of the truth? “In the Wikipedia universe, what has shaken out is that a lot of those folks who are not interested in the truth wind up going somewhere else,” Lih points out. (See: Conservapedia.) “They find that the community that is concerned with neutrality and with getting verifiable information into Wikipedia is going to dominate.” Majority rules — in a good way.

At the same time, though, “I welcome die-hard Fox viewers,” Lih says. “I welcome people who think Accuracy in Media is the last word. Because if you can cite from a reliable source — from a congressional record, from the Census Bureau, from the Geological Survey, from CIA Factbook, from something — then by all means, I don’t really care what your political stripes are. Because the facts should win out in the end.”

Photo of Andrew Lih by Kat Walsh, used under a GNU Free Documentation License.

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